PPFL: Dribbling with Mediocrity [Dawn]

by Ali Ahsan

ppfl, pakistan premier football league, pakistan football federation, pff, Makhdoom Syed Faisal Saleh Hayat, footballpakistan, football pakistan, pakistan football, Akeem Abbas Olajuwon, Wohaib FC, FIFA, football

Almost no vision, no genuine sponsorship, no transparency, and no coverage means the PPFL remains just a token tournament. -Photo by White Star/Stephan Andrew

It has been nine years since the Pakistan Premier Football League (PPFL) was formally established as a permanent replacement of the National Football Championship. This was done in the initial months of Makhdoom Syed Faisal Saleh Hayat’s first term as President of the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) after winning the PFF elections.

The move to form a national league was done to help boost the flagging fortunes of domestic football in Pakistan, and to show PFF’s commitment to increasingly stringent requirements from FIFA and AFC to keep receiving development grants annually given that government funding for PFF had always remained a bare minimum.

However, despite ‘ticking the boxes’ to maintain a level of international assistance, the PPFL has remained an obscure and mediocre football tournament. A FIFA delegation to Pakistan rightly advised the local federation to restructure the league and gave a list of recommendations to help see it through.

PPFL has failed to get even a fleeting glance from the growing football-obsessed urban public, and is not considered attractive for corporate involvement – the very basis of professional sports leagues around the world. Almost no vision, no genuine sponsorship, no transparency, and no coverage means the PPFL remains just a token tournament exemplifying the very amateur and obscure past Pakistani football just cannot escape from.

Like almost every other domestic competition in Pakistan, the PPFL remains the bastion of  government and semi-government department teams like Wapda, Army, PAF, KESC, KRL, NBP and HBL. Now that is a sure-shot turn-off for any football fan who just cannot associate with a Wapda or KESC squad.

Would Manchester City fans still be as loyal to the club if it were called British Gas? The few token football clubs that are present have very meagre resources and struggle to avoid being the PPFL whipping boys. As a technical consultant for PMC Athletico Faisalabad from 2008-2010, I have been witness to such a predicament facing private clubs that are supposed to be the flag bearers of football culture around the world.

Department teams rely purely on their annual sports budget to keep the wheel spinning, and retain the athletes essentially as employees. They tend to out-finance the few privately-owned teams, who because of their tiny resources and lack of any corporate mentality, are essentially robbed off their best talent to the prospect of permanent jobs at a department side. There is no foreign talent in the league since departments refuse to hire them as ‘permanent employees’.

The last foreign player in PPFL was Nigeria’s Akeem Abbas Olajuwon. His ill-fated stint at Lahore’s Wohaib FC, owned by Jamaat-e-Islami heavyweight Hafiz Salman Butt in 2007-08 season, would serve as a caution to any foreigner thinking of plying his trade in Pakistan. Akeem complained of poor treatment, almost zero pay by Wohaib, and became stranded in the country. Wohaib’s own failure to properly register him as a foreign player without a formal No Objection Certificate (NOC) from PFF meant that Wohaib violated tregulations. The penalised club was eventually relegated from the League. Months passed without Akeem getting paid and without any means to head back to Nigeria, the player ended up overstaying his visa. With no support from PFF or Wohaib, Akeem finally managed to head back home only with the help of ex-referee Ahmed Jan (CDGK) who gave him shelter in his Karachi home and managed to collect donations to pay for the flight.

The department culture means a sports budget is guaranteed, competitive contracts not required, no media analysis and critique, and often games are played in empty grounds. Players almost always just wither away. There’s no reason for them out-perform, out-train, and out-play their opponents.

The likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Wayne Rooney did not become the best in the world just because they had some special talent. They became what they are because they were made to train hard, work hard, and were coached by dedicated and visionary professionals grooming them since they were kids. Departments do not even feel the need to form youth academies and no need to find and groom raw talent from an early age or do genuine grassroots work. It just doesn’t seem profitable to them.

To top it all off, the league is played in a ridiculously short period. Where as leagues around the world take at least 6-8 months to culminate, providing ample recovery time for fatigued athletes, the PPFL sees 30 games played in less than 4 months. This is almost a game every two days, three if you are really lucky enough to be a ‘renowned’ department! According to the PFF, this is due to ‘budget restrictions’. Such a league guarantees damage to the well-being of all ‘top division’ footballers in Pakistan. When you have a permanent job, playing in such atrocious conditions in such a short time, the desire to innovate and improve goes out the window. Most players come from under-privileged backgrounds so they risk it to earn the meagre salary on offer.

Add to this the fact that at least three of the current PPFL sides are from the restive Balochistan province. Many top department sides refuse to play there over security fears, gifting points to the hosts and ensuring their survival for another season at the expense of the more hard-pressed teams. Poor refereeing, and allegations of match-fixing, has plagued the league which no one watches and no one bothers to analyse. Rules are frequently bent and twisted to favour bigger departments, and in the end the PPFL becomes a cruel farce in the name of football.

PFF has tried to remedy the situation by proposing to reduce the number of teams now from 16 to 12 for next season, but one wonders why did they decide to expand them to 16 in the first place back in 2009-2010?

Back then, the coming football elections of 2011 saw the PPFL clubs join the PFF Congress with voting rights having managed to survive in league for at least 3 consecutive seasons. But now we see a u-turn with the same clubs accommodated for votes being left back in the lurch of the ever-confusing 2nd division PFF League. The departments, as always, shall remain in pole position.

Also, PFF has yet to properly enforce the necessary requirements regarding finances, ethics, and professionalism. We have seen the league remain the same, much to the clear frustrations and resentment of the already small number of Pakistan football followers here.

In fact, PFF seems to be dodging AFC deadlines for its ‘Vision Asia’ projects in delaying making the PPFL as a separate, corporate, independent entity. It gives a strong impression that PFF does not want to give up its administrative monopoly over the League when other countries like India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar, and various Central Asian states have progressively professionalised their domestic league structure.

As it is obviously the case, the power held by departments in PFF Congress and local football authorities means they will always resist any changes to their football sides. They have shown extremely reluctance at registering their teams as privately-owned sides. They would rather take cosmetic measures, like putting FC (Football Club) as a suffix to their names, and pretend they are professional.

The league remains far below semi-pro standard and its champions cannot compete beyond the low-grade AFC President’s Cup; a continental tournament where Pakistani teams always struggle in facing sides from smaller countries that have actually taken steps to improve their leagues!

The PFF has basically dug itself deep in a hole it cannot get out from. It is surrounded on all sides by reluctant entities only wanting to maintain the status quo, force their poorly trained players into the national youth and senior sides, and are content being the big fish in a small pond of mediocrity.

The federation seems content with what it has, since the departments are not dependent on PFF/AFC/FIFA handouts, and as a result PFF does not need to generate revenue and be innovative. It can survive on development grants just by giving cosmetic satisfaction to higher football authorities.

On an interesting flip side, given that PFF gets only a small sliver of the government sports budget and is protected by FIFA laws that prohibit government interference in its member associations, it can basically defy the Pakistan Sports Board and resist its own lacklustre attempts to bring about a comprehensive national sports policy by taking it to court. When it comes to politics, everyone becomes a natural talent here in Pakistan.

The writer is Chief Editor, Forum Administrator, and Pakistan Correspondent at FootballPakistan.Com (FPDC)